Predicting where Matt Kenseth will end up at the end of this season isn’t easy after the results he’s turned in during the past two years. But there is good news buried inside that confusion: Even if Kenseth replicates the worst of his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll be a top-10 driver.
Kenseth, of course, was simply golden during his first run with JGR in 2013. He won a series- and career-high seven times and pushed Jimmie Johnson harder than any other driver.
But last season proved to be far different. Kenseth was largely as consistent as ever, recording the same number of lead-lap finishes (30) as the previous year while increasing his top-5 and top-10 results. However, in the stat that counts — visits to Victory Lane — he put up a surprising goose egg. Kenseth qualified for the postseason through points, a product of his consistency, and actually remained eligible for the title through the third round.
For a time, it even looked like he could become the sport’s first winless champion. When it didn’t happen, Kenseth was realistic, recognizing the lack of speed that hampered him.
“In 2013, we were exceptionally fast at most race tracks,” Kenseth says. “Between the (2014) aero changes and getting the cars down and all that stuff, we just didn’t seem to have a handle on it the way we did the year before. Our balance was just way off, and we never really did get it fixed the way we wanted to.”
Interestingly, Kenseth wasn’t too surprised at how he and his JGR teammates performed. In testing before the 2014 season, the JGR Toyotas never had the same handling comfort — and thus the speed — as they had with the 2013 rules package. It’s a deficit from which they never recovered. That’s changed for this season, Kenseth said after test sessions revealed major improvement based on 2015 rules.
“I feel the best about the aero changes, getting the downforce off the cars,” Kenseth says. “Hopefully that will make it a little bit easier to pass in traffic and the cars a little more free. I’m hoping that will help.”
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Among the tweaks this year are decreased rear spoiler heights, a reduced-horsepower engine and a new set of in-car suspension adjustment tools for the driver’s use. Should Kenseth adapt well, expect it to make a substantial difference in how well he and the rest of the JGR stable perform. Despite teammate Denny Hamlin earning a spot in the final race to determine the champion, JGR teams won only twice in Sprint Cup — and one of those wins came on the restrictor-plate track at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s ultimate equalizer.
In Kenseth’s favor is the addition of Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, to the JGR lineup as the multi-car operation expands from three to four teams. Kenseth and Edwards had a positive working relationship at RFR prior to Kenseth’s departure for JGR in 2013. Edwards also brings in substantial new sponsorship, allowing JGR to hire more engineers and shop staff while dedicating more resources to research and development. An influx of funding from Kenseth’s main backer, Dollar General, and the addition of old partner DeWalt give the team more funding even with the departure of longtime JGR supporter Home Depot.
The organization is also undergoing a hefty transition of several key staff members thanks to the addition of Edwards and the disappointment of 2014 — though Kenseth’s main point of contact, crew chief Jason Ratcliff, won’t change. This season, Edwards will work with Darian Grubb, who moved over from Denny Hamlin’s team. Grubb was replaced in that role over at the No. 11 Toyota by Kyle Busch’s former crew chief, Dave Rogers. That leaves Busch with Adam Stevens, promoted from the JGR XFINITY Series teams, on his pit box going forward. Expect the changes to boost performance.
Kenseth, 43, will start his 545th Sprint Cup race and 16th consecutive full-time season at NASCAR’s highest level when the green flag drops on the 2015 Daytona 500. Having made 10 of 11 Chases, a record topped only by Jimmie Johnson, there’s no reason to believe the consistency will stop.
“I really feel more confident about (2015) than I did last year at this time,” Kenseth says.
With changes made and plans for improvement over a moderately successful run a year ago, it’s not hard to understand why.
No wins? No problem Kenseth’s fall from seven wins in 2013 to zero in 2014 had more to do with speed than skill. His No. 20 car dropped from second to seventh in average green-flag speed rank. If JGR regains speed in 2015, look for Kenseth to take advantage.
Expect excellence The one- to 1.49-mile tracks, such as Phoenix, Dover and Darlington, are welcome sites for the veteran, who averaged a 7.4-place finish in seven races at tracks that fall in that mileage range last year.
Seal the deal Kenseth gained 37 positions in the final 10th of races last year. His closing acumen was amplified in the daylight, where he gained 46 positions across 25 races in daytime hours.
A top-10 fixture In what many felt was a down season after a career year, Kenseth scored two more top-10 finishes — 22 in all, up from 20 — in 2014.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: Dollar General, DeWalt
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.